48 Hours In: Nairobi
Now is the perfect time to visit the Kenyan capital. Frank Partridge reveals the highlights of East Africa's largest city, from Masai traders, to tropical gardens... and tame giraffes
Saturday 13 September 2008
Why go now?
East Africa's largest city and premier safari hub is ideal in our autumn: the climate is usually perfect, with plentiful sunshine, little rain and comfortable temperatures regulated by the city's altitude of around 1,700m.
Arrivals from the UK land at at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, 15km south-east of Nairobi city centre, where your first duty is to pay $50 (£28.50) for an immigration visa. Bus 34 runs an inexpensive shuttle service into town, costing 500 Kenyan shillings (Ksh500/£4.20), but taxis are a safer and roomier option. These are unmetered, so it's essential to negotiate the fare before boarding: Ksh1,700 (£14) is about right for a ride to central Nairobi, and similar fares apply from the centre to the various out-of-town venues detailed below.
Get your bearings
With a rapidly expanding population – 3.5 million at the last count – Nairobi sprawls in every direction, although most visitors base themselves in or around the high-rise centre or the districts of Westlands and Parklands immediately to the north. The city has no official tourist information offices, but many hotels and travel agencies provide maps of the centre, and arrange transport for excursions and sight-seeing, for example to the Nairobi National Park (see below). The rate for a half-day trip is around Ksh3,400 (£28), or double that for a full eight-hour tour.
Fairmont The Norfolk (1) on Harry Thuku Road (00 254 20 225 0900; www. fairmont.com) acquired the first address in Nairobi when it opened, as plain "The Norfolk", in 1904. It has retained its pleasingly colonial atmosphere despite extensive enlargement over the years. The 165 rooms and suites are arranged around an attractive garden courtyard and an outdoor pool, and residents have free use of the gym and spa. A standard double room costs from $229 (£131) per night.
Alternatively, the Holiday Inn (2) on Parklands Road (00 254 20 368 8000; www.holiday-inn.com/nairobikenya) is a reliable mid-range option, set in beautiful gardens with two swimming pools and a gym. A double with breakfast costs $260 (£149). In the cheaper range, the Ngong Hills Hotel (3) on Ngong Road (00 254 20 386 0894; www.ngonghillshotel.com) has 35 clean, air-conditioned rooms, with en suite bathrooms, for Ksh4,500 (£37.50) including breakfast.
Take a View
... from the roof of the towering Kenyatta International Conference Centre (4), which opened in 1973 as the iconic achievement of the young republic. Built of brown granite, the cylindrical tower no longer has a revolving restaurant on the 28th floor, but any day from 8am-6pm an official guide will take you even higher for a fee of Ksh400 (£3.30). The panorama is stunning, with the entire metropolis spread out across the Rift Valley, and the two distant peaks of Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro both visible on a clear day.
Take a hike
It's wise to avoid the parks and open spaces of the city centre, especially if you're alone, so the best way to immerse yourself in the downtown bustle is to explore the streets and markets around Kenyatta Avenue, possibly the most imposing thoroughfare in East Africa. The government and presidential buildings provide a pleasingly modern contrast to relics of British colonial rule such as the Railway Headquarters (5) and the Law Courts (6).
Every Saturday morning, hundreds of Masai traders colonise the car park next to the Law Courts (6). They set up stalls selling traditional craftwork at prices which – after some gentle bargaining – put the established curio shops to shame. This is the place to go for beadwork, baskets and wood carvings. The Bata store on Kenyatta Avenue (7) sells classic safari desert boots, which are locally made. Of Nairobi's two dozen shopping malls, the Sarit Centre (8) in Westlands has a fine range of stores, and stays open until 11pm.
Lunch on the run
Numerous western-style coffee shops have opened in the city centre in recent years, many of them serving good snacks and sandwiches, and, in the case of Savanna (9) on Loita Street, British-style fish and chips.
Take a ride
... half an hour west of the city, preferably by taxi, to the well-heeled suburb of Karen, named after the Danish author Karen Blixen. She lived in a stone house surrounded by woods and a coffee plantation from 1917-31, an experience that inspired the novel Out of Africa. The mahogany-panelled house is now a museum that successfully re-creates the period, although the costumes displayed are not original: they were the ones worn by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford in the 1985 movie of the same name. The museum (00 254 20 882 779; www.museums.or.ke) opens between 9.30am-6pm every day. Admission is Ksh800 (£6.70) with a further Ksh1,000 (£8.30) for a guided tour.
If you have more time available, Nairobi's magnificent National Park (www.kws. org./nairobi.html) is a must. Remarkably, this wild but enclosed space in the Langata district is just 7km from the city centre, but contains 80 varieties of large mammals and more than 400 bird species. It even has a scaled-down version of the annual wildebeest migration. You need to hire a vehicle and driver (Ksh4500/£37.50) for a minimum of an hour, although the longer, two-hour game drive (same price) is likely to produce many more close encounters with wildlife.
The bars and clubs in Westlands have become a magnet for expatriate locals and Western visitors. Two of the most popular are the Gipsy Bar (10) (known as Gipsy's) on Ring Road, and Havana Bar on Woodvale Grove – and the drink of choice is the excellent, locally brewed Tusker beer.
Dining with the Locals
Kenyans prefer to dine at home, and the best restaurants in Nairobi are run by incomers. But good Kenyan dishes are available at European-style haunts such as the Flametree Restaurant at the Panafric Hotel (11) on Kenyatta Avenue (00 254 20 272 0822; www.sarovahotels.com), where local dishes include fried Mombasa prawns (Ksh550/£4.60) and red snapper dusted with bush spices (Ksh700/£5.80).
Set in tropical gardens to the south of town, Carnivore (12) in the Langata district (00 254 20 605 933; www.carnivore.co.ke) is no place for vegetarians. It specialises in a variety of exotic meat dishes, such as crocodile and ostrich, roasted on spits around a circular fireplace. For a fixed price of Ksh1,984 (£16.50) per head, you get soup, salad and as much meat as you can eat, until you signify your surrender by lowering a flag on the table. Dinner is served 6.30-11pm every evening. Book in advance.
Sunday morning: go to church
Nairobi has two fine, contrasting cathedrals. The Roman Catholic Holy Family Basilica (13), consecrated in 1982, is as boldly modern as the skyscrapers of the business district, with a lofty bell-tower of its own that extends to 30 storeys. Sunday Mass in English is celebrated at 8, 9 and 11.30am. Dating from 1917, the warmer stone, rose window, pillars and arches of All Saints, the Anglican Cathedral (14) create a more traditional confection. On Sundays, Holy Communion is at 7, 8 and 9am, with the main service at 11.30am. Both cathedrals open every day for visitors between 6am and 7pm.
A walk in the park
The Nairobi Arboretum (15) is a largely undiscovered delight, well patrolled by security personnel and thus suitable for a walk or a picnic in the shade cast by its vast collection of trees. Precisely what trees they are is not always apparent but the pathways are well maintained and it's a refreshing retreat from the urban frenzy. Open from 6.30am-6.30pm, admission free.
Out to brunch
Make for the Intercontinental Hotel (16) on City Hall Way (00 254 20 32 00 000; www.ihg.com). Every Sunday between noon and 4pm, an open-air carvery is set up beside the swimming pool, where you can eat as much as you like for Ksh2,000 (£16.50) per head.
The magnificent Kenya National Museum (17) on Museum Hill (00 254 20 374 2131; www.museums.or.ke) reopened in July after refurbishment. It's an ideal appetiser for a safari tour of Kenya, charting the unique palaeontology of the Cradle of Mankind. Contemporary art from throughout East Africa is also well displayed, and there's a café and well-stocked African design shop outside. The museum opens 9.30am-6pm every day; admission Ksh800 (£6.70).
Icing on the cake
A century ago, the area now occupied by Nairobi was a dense, highland forest inhabited by rhino, buffalo, giraffe and a few elephants. Today, all that wildlife would have disappeared but for a remarkable conservation project in the suburb of Langata.
The Giraffe Centre (00 254 2 890 952; www.giraffecentre.org) was founded in 1979 with a mission to save the endangered Rothschild sub-species of giraffe. It's worked. Three decades later, their population has increased from 120 to 300, and the nine current incumbents will feed from your hand at the visitors' balcony. Admission to the centre, which opens from 8am-6pm, is Ksh700 (£5.80).
The writer travelled to Nairobi with British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) which offers daily flights from Heathrow to Nairobi from £385.70 return.
Ground arrangements were handled by Kuoni (01306 747 002; www.kuoni.co.uk).
For more information, contact the Kenya Tourist Board on 020-7367 0931, or see www.magicalkenya.com
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